The Orwell Question: Who Would He Vote For Today? | Ewell Gregoor
I have recently finished, A Clergyman’s Daughter, by George Orwell. This completed the catalogue of Orwell books, both fiction and non-fiction. Like Christopher Hitchens, who liked to proclaim that he had, ‘read every word that Orwell ever wrote’, I have myself set upon this mission, as I now make my way through Orwell’s back catalogue of Essays, Book Reviews and Newspaper Articles.
The reason Orwell is so fascinating and is still cited across the political spectrum today, some 70 years after his death, is because his works are still one of the most relevant than can be applied to contemporary politics. Orwell is, strangely, more celebrated by centre right Conservatives than he is by left wing Labour supporters, despite Orwell’s unquestionable status as a socialist. Orwellians come from across the political spectrum, which is testament to Orwell’s many paradoxes. Orwell was a patriot who was fearful of nationalism. A socialist who did not trust the state. An atheist who advocated religion. The dissonance in Orwell’s work and the changing of his political mind throughout his life has led to Orwell’s work talked about as if biblical, with many different interpretations.
With politics more dystopian than ever, it begs the question: Who would Orwell have voted for today?
An easier place to start is tackling the question of Brexit, which I believe is much simpler. The European Union, nor the European Economic Area existed through Orwell’s life, meaning a direct opinion on the European union is not possible. However, Orwell did review the Austrian Economist, Friedrich Hayek’s book, The Road to Serfdom, before Orwell passed in 1950. Hayek’s economic theory advocates deficit control and free trade, which are two key components in the European Union’s Economic Constitution. Orwell said of Hayek’s book, ‘a return to ‘free’ competition means for the great mass of people a tyranny probably worse, because more irresponsible, than that of the state‘.
Orwell’s critique of Hayek’s free competition can be applied to the single market aspect of the European Union, which goes a long way to ending the debate around Orwell and Brexit. Orwell would have opposed the European Union on the grounds of economics and democracy. Of this I am sure.
It is important not to conflate Orwell’s words from his essay, England Your England, where he spoke of a desire for the English to embrace their Euopeanism, with a hypothetical support of the Union. Europe and the European Union are not the same. Orwell would have been an advocate of NATO and embracing traditional European culture. Orwell would not have supported an ever closer undemocratic union which has neoliberal economics engraved in its constitution.
Some of Orwell’s past works also highlight how the European Union would have been inimical to Orwell’s political beliefs, best identified in his book, The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell suggests that mass government spending and Labour organisation through labour unions would enhance the life of the proletariat. It is therefore pertinent to point out that European Union jurisprudence determines that member states must not exceed budget deficits of 3%. It was also reported this year that the European Union repeatedly asked member states to cut public spending to comply with deficit controls. Which we know from the European Union’s treatment of Greece during the Great Recession, leads to enforced austerity. The European Union’s economic policy is an anathema to Orwell’s ideology and traditional left wing economic principles.
It would be fanciful to blame the demise of trade unions in the U.K to Thatcherite policy alone. The trade unions in the U.K. have been decimated by the European Union’s, free movement of labour policy. John Maynard Keynes explains in his book, General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, that wages organically rise in accordance with the demand of labour. It is therefore not difficult to see how having tens of millions of potential workers from across an entire continent has eroded union power, and accommodated the longest period of wage stagnation for 150 years. The European Union are not only indirectly inimical to unions, but openly hostile, as demonstrated by the 2016 case in which the Norwegian Dockers Union demonstrated against a Danish based company who began to use its own employees to unload cargo in Norway, taking work away from the Norwegians. The Danish Company took the Labour Union to the EFTA court who subsequently found the demonstrations to be illegal. A further example of the supranational, anti-democratic reach of the European Union, which Orwell would have opposed.
Brexit, which has dominated our political agenda since 2016, and has contributed to former Labour heartlands turning blue, so must be a key consideration for the more difficult question, who would Orwell have voted for today? Many will point to the fact that Orwell was a member of the Independent Labour Party, the only political party membership that Orwell held, as a justification that Orwell would still vote Labour. However, It is important to consider that Orwell’s first political identification was a Tory Anarchist. Peter Wilkin’s essay titled, George Orwell: The English Dissident as Tory Anarchist, explains:
“the qualities that Orwell felt made him a Tory anarchist remained with him throughout his life, even after his commitment to democratic socialism. In fact, many of those qualities (fear of an all‐powerful state, respect for privacy, support for common sense and decency, patriotism) connect the two aspects of his character“
Wilkin’s claim that Tory Anarchism stayed with Orwell throughout his life is exemplified in, The Road to Wigan Pier, where Orwell challenged political orthodoxies that are all too often accompanied with left economics, and subsequently obstruct them. Below is a selection of quotes from, The Road to Wigan Pier.
“One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words, socialism and communism, draw towards with them a magnetic force every fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer, sex manic, Quaker, nature cure quack, pacifist and feminist in England“.
“Sometimes I look at a socialist, intellectual tract-writing type of socialist, with his pull over, fuzzy hair, and his Marxist quotation and wonder what the devil his motive really is. It is difficult to believe it is a love of anybody, especially the working class, from whom he is of all people the furthest removed“.
“What is possible, however, is for the more intelligent type of socialist to stop alienating the possible supporters in silly and quite irrelevant ways. There are so many minor priggishness which could be so easily dropped“.
It is hard to believe that Orwell’s words above were written in 1936, such are their relevance in contemporary British politics. It does beg the question, now that Labour Party’s membership and MPs are obsessed with free markets, globalisation, and have delved further down the rabbit hole with fringe social movements, what would be left for Orwell to advocate in the Labour Party?
Wilkin is not alone in talking about Orwell’s Conservative tendencies. Robert Colls, George Orwell, English Rebel biography, starts with the statement, ‘George Orwell was what they used to call a socialist, he shared, also, some of the attitudes to life they used to call Tory’. Colls goes on to claim that some of Orwell’s closest friends claimed that he remained a Conservative throughout his life.
In ironic Orwellian fashion, present day politics are in somewhat of a dystopian state on both sides of the Atlantic. It is the Conservative Party in Britain that are retreating from free trade and open markets, whilst the Labour Party aim to cling on to their membership of what is a quintessential capitalist institution. Some Labour politicians point towards the frivolous claim that they wish to revolutionise the European Union from within. However, this is again fanciful. Richard Tuck, a left wing political commutator rebuffs the claim in his book, The Left Case for Brexit, ‘Many in the British Labour Party believe that the EU may change. But that type of shift is not possible within the present structures of the EU: it would require sweeping institutional change of a kind nowhere on the agenda’.
It is these structural issues that would have prevented the majority of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic pledges at the 2019 general election being implemented should Labour’s promised second referendum result in Britain remaining in the Union. The Labour proposal to completely re-nationalise the rail networks would have interested Orwell, however new European Union legislation, the Fourth Railway Package, states that contracts for rail services across Europe would need to be offered to private companies. European Union economic jurisprudence also states that services must be subject to free competition, meaning the public ownership of utilities proposed by Labour could not be guaranteed.
The dystopia increased in the pre-Covid Conservative budget, which had an element of Keynesian economics. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak’s claim that infrastructure spending would lead the way out of economic stagnation, was almost paraphrased from Keynes himself.
The same dystopia is present in the US, where despite being cast as the most right wing President in history, President Trump has produced more left wing economic policies than any President in recent memory. The Presidents trade war with China, who continue to undermine western economies with their cheap production of goods though poor wages and abhorrent working conditions, would draw plaudits from Marx. The same President recently declared that immigration into the US would be halted in the face of rising unemployment. This drew particular criticism from communitarians who proclaim to be on the economic left. Which is surprising, considering a rising population amidst record unemployment would only serve to harm collective worker strength. It is again another policy that Marx would applaud.
It is difficult to say with any real conviction which way Orwell would have voted in the 2019 general election, or who he would advocate for the working people today. Orwell’s views are still represented in the Labour Party through the pressure group, Blue Labour. However, apart from Blue Labour, the people with whom Orwell sought to represent, the working class, have abandoned Labour and can be found voting Conservative. Would Orwell, like myself and many other defectors, feel that there is more scope for the Tories to move left on the economy than there is for Labour to rediscover their economic socialist principles or move right on social values?
If pressed to answer, I would be inclined to think that Orwell would follow the working class. Orwell’s, Down and Out in Paris and London,and, The Road to Wigan Pier, could be interpreted as somewhat of a hagiography of the working class. Whilst in, 1984, Orwell claimed through character Winston Smith, ‘if there is hope, it is in the proletariat’. It is hard to fathom any potential reason other than nostalgia for why Orwell would vote Labour. The orthodox left which Orwell spoke about with disdain have taken over the party, they control the membership and have infiltrated the unions. So with that, my prediction is that Orwell, along with the majority of proletariat, would have turned blue.
Photo by bean shadow on Flickr.